The Syfy network abruptly canceled its excellent The Expanse earlier this year to make room for Nightflyers, an expensive sci-fi/horror concoction based on a 1981 novella by author George R.R. Martin. Whether that pedigree will rope in Game of Thrones viewers remains to be seen. Those simply looking for a quality space drama can take heart that The Expanse was saved by Amazon.
I’m probably being a little too harsh with that opening paragraph and the choice of quote in my headline. Nightflyers isn’t actually terrible, but it is rather unoriginal and, at least so far, lacking in depth or complexity. It’s essentially a gory haunted house tale in outer space. If you’ve seen Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon, you get the gist. For that matter, Nightflyers itself was previously adapted into a low-budget movie in 1987.
The TV version premiered on Sunday and will air miniseries-style, with all of the season’s ten episodes running daily from Sunday to Thursday this week and next. Either the network is experimenting with a binge-watch model, or (if you’re a pessimist) burning the show off to get rid of it before the new year.
1.01: All That We Left Behind
The pilot episode opens with the very intriguing image of a tree floating through the void of outer space. As the camera pulls back, we see that it comes from the wreckage of a spacecraft spiraling out of control. On board, a female crewmember (Gretchen Mol) desperately records a message warning anyone who hears it not to bring the ship back to Earth or to board it. She’s barely able to eject the recorder when she’s attacked by a bearded psycho with an axe (Angus Sampson). Upon getting the message out, she picks up a bone saw and slices open her own throat with a huge spray of blood. Ick.
In the following scene, we’re introduced to scientist Karl D’Branin (Eoin Macken) telling his family that he’s heading off on a mission that will take him away from them for two years. The details are vague, but we learn that a viral pandemic has spread across the Earth, and his plan to travel to space on a ship called the Nightflyer is somehow related. In the middle of talking to his young daughter, the image freezes, and we discover that he’s watching a video recording of his memory in a holodeck-style VR booth.
Confusingly, on-screen text announces a “Six Months Later” time-jump forward to the year 2093, where D’Branin introduces Dr. Agatha Matheson (Gretchen Mol again), who we just saw die, to other members of the ship’s crew. This means that the show started with a flash-forward, followed by a flashback, followed by a shorter flash-forward, and only the last one of those is clearly identified. Matheson is a psychiatrist whose job is to care for a so-called “L1” telepath named Thale. She insists that he’s just a harmless kid, but Thale arrives on the ship in a locked container under heavily armed guard, and most of the rest of the crew are freaked out and terrified by his presence. Apparently, L1s have the ability to make people see and do things beyond their own control, and have a history of being murderous psychopaths. When we finally get to see him, Thale (Sam Strike) certainly acts the part, gleefully tormenting anyone who looks at him with frightening visions.
As more details emerge, we learn that the ship’s mission is to make first contact with an alien race called the Volcryn (which sounds like “Vulcan” almost every time the characters say it), who are about to have a ship fly within reachable distance for the first time. The thing is, these Volcryn have to date displayed no interest in communicating with Earthlings, and there’s been no sign of that changing. The hope is that the L1 telepath may be able to get through to them, because his brain patterns sync up with signals detected in deep space, or something. Exo-biologist Rowan (Angus Sampson, last seen as the axe-wielding lunatic) is doubtful it will work, but doesn’t want to miss a chance to see aliens with his own eyes. Other than being a skeptic, he doesn’t seem like too bad a guy so far.
Other notable characters on the ship include genetically-enhanced superwoman Melantha (Jodie Turner-Smith), human computer supernerd Lommie (Maya Eshet), and the secretive Capt. Eris (David Ajala, also featured in the current season of Supergirl), who creepily spies on the entire crew from thousands of hidden cameras and will only interact with anyone via a hologram projection.
The trip starts to go bad almost immediately. Before the ship even leaves Earth orbit, a thruster malfunction nearly sends it tumbling into the atmosphere. Soon after, characters are plagued with scary visions. D’Branin is repeatedly haunted by his dead daughter. Melantha almost drowns in a water tank and sees her own decapitated and disemboweled body in a bloody pool next to her. Lommie experiences something terrifying that she doesn’t want to talk about when plugged into the ship’s computer.
Instinctively, most people blame Thale, and he doesn’t do anything to dissuade them. Even the captain orders him put into a coma with suspended brain function. Agatha insists that he’s innocent and something else is to blame, but the only person who believes her at first is D’Branin. The fact that they have a romantic history together might have something to do with that. At the end of the first episode, Thale somehow escapes his captivity and an engineering crewmember who runs into him is found burned alive.
1.02: Torches and Pitchforks
In the second episode, a panic spreads rapidly across the ship. Capt. Eris orders the ship’s security team to hunt down and stop Thale by any means necessary, and a soldier named Suczek is especially eager to put him down permanently. Thale tricks him into attacking one of his own squad and then steals his weapon.
Thale makes his way to one of the ship’s arboretum domes, where he encounters a very strange hippie lady covered in bees. Her name is Tessia (Miranda Raison), and she’s not afraid of him at all. Other than Agatha, she may be the only person on the ship sympathetic to him, which he definintely doesn’t deserve based on his behavior.
Fearing a direct confrontation, Suczek arms some cool spider-bots with deadly lasers in order to send them in after Thale, but the bots get hacked and attack him first.
Believing he can prove that someone else set the comatose engineer crewman on fire, D’Branin plugs him into the VR holodeck and plays back his memory of the attack, only to learn that Thale in fact did it after all. This is dispiriting for him. However, after D’Branin admits what he learned to the captain, Eris decides that the success of the mission is too important, and covers up the murder with an announcement that an electrical fire was to blame and Thale is innocent. This calms down the crew enough that Thale can be returned to his cell unharmed.
Eris then admits to D’Branin that an unspecified “force” has been actively working to stop the mission, but he’s evasive with the details. After D’Branin leaves the room, the Eris hologram looks into one of the many cameras and says, “This time you’ve gone too far,” as if talking to the ship itself.
Premiere Verdict / Grade: B-
I’m not going to pretend that Nightflyers is great television, but some of the early negative reviews have been a bit overblown. The show is quite stylish and atmospheric, with nice visual effects and several genuinely good scares. (The spider-bots in particular are a lot of fun.) I’m interested enough to continue watching.
On the other hand, I’m really tired of the dimly-lit, shadowy spaceship trope (seriously, turn on some lights in there!), and the majority of this ship’s crew (especially the captain) behave very unprofessionally and make a series of dumb decisions that exacerbate their problems. It seems obvious from early on that the ship itself is evil, and I have my doubts that the answers for why that is or why the captain would cover it up will prove satisfying.
It also feels like a dumb idea to start the first episode with the huge spoiler of what happens to Agatha and Rowan. It’s hard to get invested in Agatha’s story when we already know how and when she’ll die, even if we aren’t yet sure what happens to get to that point.
If Syfy could really only keep one space drama on the air this season, I’d definitely rather have more of The Expanse. Thankfully, the richest man in the world agrees with me on that.